Dear Annie Finch:I discovered your February 2009 Harriet blog entry “Poetry in Notion: What Does That Word Mean Anyway?” while searching for a definition of poetry versus prose. I’ve hit up against that same question in my own “poetry” and am very much hoping you might give me your input. Did you ever arrive at a conclusion regarding where poetry begins and prose ends that you yourself found satisfying?
arbitrarily imposed. I’ve always been deliberate in my line breaks, so this caught me by surprise. I could at least see the objection on the first piece that elicited this comment—but am flummoxed by the second. Which led me to your blog entry.The “poem” in question is atIf you don't mind offering your opinion, is this poetry (even bad poetry!)? It lacks meter and traditional form, but I'd thought it was a poem....I don’t mean nor want to impose. And please know that I’m not requesting a critique. It's just that I don’t know how much of this comes down to personal style and, because I don't understand, am frankly about ready to hang it up as a so-called “poet.”Thanks for any comments that you may have to offer. Even if it’s a simple “yes” or “no” to the “is it poetry?” question, I’d appreciate it more than I can say.Lisa
Yes, Lisa, I did reach a conclusion regarding where poetry begins and prose ends. After decades of thought I settled on this definition (which can be found in my book The Body of Poetry): "a poem is a text structured (not merely decorated) by the repetition of any language element or elements. Any language element can be repeated to structure a poem." In your poem, the repeated language element is the linebreak (see chart below). So in a sense the person who said what you wrote was lined prose is correct, but they are missing the fact that lined prose IS a kind of poetry: the use of the line itself makes your text into a poem.
That lined prose is poetry may sound laughable, but it is not. As I discussed in my Harriet post, the notion that a text has to be good/profound/inspired/lyrical to be a "real poem" (while it was useful to clear out some Victorian cobwebs a century ago), has lately been the root of more evils than it has solved. Nobody goes around saying that my kid's dance concert is not a dance concert, or that my amateur paintings are not paintings; they are clearly paintings, just amateur ones. The art of poetry is the only art where people routinely attach an evaluative judgment to the definition of the art itself. This mis-thinking has ended up eroding the definition of poetry to the point where many people, like you, are not sure they can even recognize a poem--let alone a good poem--when they see one.
While some people have tried to find clarity by asserting that only good poems are "real" poetry, others have tried to find clarity by asserting that only formal poems are "real" poems--an idea you referred to when you mentioned that your poem doesn't have rhyme or meter. But a poem doesn't need rhyme or meter to be a poem; all it needs is for any language element to be repeated in a patterned, structuring way, so that a reader can predict the recurrence of the pattern. In your poem, you can predict that every line will be broken before it reaches the end of the page. That makes it indeed a poem. However, linebreaks are not a very conspicuous language element, which leads us to the final part of the definition: "The more conspicuous (palpable, audible, tangible) the repeated language element, the more formal the poem feels to us." It is this perceptible conspicuousness in the repetition that makes a poem satisfying to many readers. Your poem is a poem, but it is not a formal poem because linebreaks, unlike rhyme or meter, are difficult if not impossible to feel/hear/touch in the body if you are reading the poem, or to hear when the poem is read aloud (unless someone consciously "performs" them).
The chart below should help you get a sense of where your poem fits in the larger field of poetic possibilities. Once you know what kind of poetic structure you are working in, then you can begin to get better at it, to develop skill at using your chosen repeating language element (so far, the line break) to incite power, suspense, pleasure, and insight in your readers, and to consider branching out into using other kinds of repeating language elements as well. I am just finishing proofreading a book called A Poet's Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poems which will be published in Spring 2011. It has chapters on every aspect of writing poetry, from inspiration to how to get published, including how to use tension and surprise to write strong free verse, and how to learn to recognize meters in your free verse so that you can either enhance or avoid them. Maybe this book will be helpful to you also, Lisa. Meanwhile, do check out the chart below, and enjoy! —Annie